Dure: No full-time travel before age 12? Momentum is growing
Four years ago, U.S. Youth Soccer released a comprehensive Player Development Model. Tucked away on page 31 was a startling recommendation:
“Tryouts should not begin until the U-13 age group.”
It’s safe to say few clubs have followed that advice. In a few informal surveys at NSCAA Convention sessions, the oldest “first tryouts” I’ve heard have been U-10. More typical is U-9 or possibly U-8.
The issue, though, isn’t necessarily “tryouts.” It’s cuts. Are you telling a 9-year-old kid he or she can’t participate at an elite level? Are you telling the parents it’s unlikely that he or she will ever make the leap to a higher track?
And though your local club isn’t likely to cancel its spring U-9 tryouts or expand its fall programs to meet everyone’s interests, there is a movement to change the way we think about soccer at the younger ages.
“Limit cuts for ages 0-12 in sport programs and focus on developing skills over competition outcomes.”
The goal is player retention. Former U.S. Soccer Executive VP Mike Edwards put it this way (see page 30 of the Annual General Meeting book): “I remain convinced that fishing in a pond of six million for World Cup players will be more productive than a pond with only four million members, the same level we’ve had for more than a decade.”
But we’re going backwards. We’re losing players before age 12.
We can’t point to any one reason for losing players. As kids get older, they might specialize in one sport, or they might focus on other activities like music or drama.
But surely soccer hurts itself by telling a 9-year-old “no.” That player could be discouraged from playing any more or perhaps cut off from good coaching, ruining the chances of being a late bloomer. Or that cut might just give a kid a bad impression of soccer, costing the sport a fan (and maybe a youth soccer parent/coach in the next generation).
“Yes, but we have to do all this to train elite players and make sure they’re challenged,” some coaches might say. Well, not really.
When the Great Birth-Year Kerfuffle began, I suggested a new way of doing things, pushing kids along by development age rather than strict chronological age. That’s one option for challenging top players — think of it as “playing up,” but more common. That fits in well with the current Development Academy-fueled push to make kids play up.
Other options, which you can see in the following video: Have additional training for those with the interest and aptitude. Replace “travel” with less frequent, more flexible scrimmages between clubs.
Elite academies elsewhere in the world have players raised on “free play,” and some players (such as at Ajax) are encouraged to continue playing in their neighborhoods. They’re not segregated into tiny pools of U-9 standouts. They might play with less skilled neighbors or big, scary adults.
In the USA, where free play is scarce, recreational soccer is a must. Just as an Ajax player might train at the academy and have free play in his neighborhood, a U.S. player can balance “serious” training and games with the club’s house league.
In talking about age groups with an advocate of the birth-year mandate, I argued that clubs should have flexibility up through U-12. He asked me what’s so magical about U-12. The biggest factor: Middle school. Kids are already branching off outside their own neighborhoods. And over the course of several years with a local club and its training options, good players will naturally gravitate toward each other. There’s your first full-fledged “travel” team.
Waiting until U-12 to make your first cuts really isn’t that radical an idea. You can still identify top talent — you can even have a tryout for kids who want to move up an age group or be on the “A” team when your club takes a few teams to face another club’s teams. You can still train anyone with a shot at being a top player.
At the same time, you can make soccer a part of every neighborhood by letting kids play with their friends. Maybe if you do things really well, these kids will keep playing together even after you’ve sorted them out into travel tiers at age 12.
The opportunity is there to go beyond building soccer players. We can erase the sport’s elitist image and build a soccer culture.
Beau Dure’s new book, Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game, is now available in paperback at Amazonand in electronic form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online booksellers. Read more about it at SportsMyriad.